Holly is a virgin waitress with unruly red hair and an upsettingly large bottom. Her life changes for ever after one searing glance from the playboy Prince Casper, which scorches her body like the hottest flame (in The Prince's Waitress Wife, the first in a new series of Mills & Boon rugby romances launched this month in association with the Rugby Football Union.)
Viva is an inexperienced chaperone, in search of the India of her childhood and ghosts from the past. This lovely heroine meets a gorgeous hero, with tragically increasing sight loss (in Julia Gregson's East of the Sun, which this week won the Romantic Novelists' Association prize).
Adam Kellas is on a journey from the mountains of Afghanistan to the elegant dinner-tables of north London, in search of that elusive thing called "love" (in the first capture by a male author of the Le Prince Maurice Prize for literary love stories, James Meek's We Are Now Beginning Our Descent).
Three literary lovers; three very different kinds of fiction. And apparently, we need stories like this more than ever.
The Romantic Novelists' Association (RNA) gave its 49th Romantic Novel of the Year award on Tuesday to a book which, according to the chairwoman, Catherine Jones, "made me cry". Julia Gregson's novel came in ahead of a shortlist that included Cecelia Ahern, Lesley Downer, Linda Gillard, Susanna Kearsley and Judith Lennox. The judges praised the "three remarkable women at the centre [of the novel], each with different flaws, strengths and voices. The novel engages the reader from the first page and never lets go, following their various fortunes until it reaches its truly satisfying ending."
Gregson said she was "completely flabbergasted" by the win. She had no idea that she had written a romantic novel, she says, until she was shortlisted. "I had to analyse what my idea of romance was. Some of the things that happen to my girls are quite unromantic, really. But it's definitely a love story."
A "satisfying" ending, according to the RNA, is as fundamental a component of romantic fiction as a strong love story at its heart. Unlike Mills & Boon, the ending doesn't necessarily have to be happy. And, unlike the more literary Le Prince Maurice Prize, which distinguishes itself from "romantic fiction", the RNA revels in the definition.
But "satisfactory" is a good word to describe the health of the romantic fiction market now. According to the latest figures from Book Marketing Limited, it is worth £118m a year and climbing – an increase of 43 per cent from 2003 to 2007. Mills & Boon sells three books every second, bucking the trend in general fiction (and general everything) sales as the recession kicks in.
In a terrible piece of news for struggling authors, the Girls Aloud popstrel Cheryl Cole has signed a £5m deal to write romantic novels ("She hadn't previously thought of writing, but she's come around to the idea," said a source at the evidently stalkerish HarperCollins), while Jane Austen's novels have been repackaged by Headline in girlie covers. Even Chris Ryan, the former SAS man and lad-lit hero, has had a nom de plume sex change and written The Fisherman's Daughter as Molly Jackson – a rare example of a man taking a female pseudonym in order to be taken more seriously as a novelist.
It's not the first time that an interest in escapist romantic fiction has coincided with depressing times – even more fundamentally depressing than the annual arrival of Valentine's Day, that is. Mills & Boon was a general publisher, specialising in sports and crafts, when it launched in 1908. It started to focus on romance when it became clear that the public needed a lift during the Depression of the 1930s. During the Second World War, when paper was rationed, it received a rare pardon; the Publishers Association intervened and the Ministry of Supplies made an exception for Mills & Boon, so important was it to maintain the morale of women who were working for the war effort.
Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and the author of Straight Talking, believes all this is perfectly understandable. "First of all, why do people read anything to escape?" she asks. "Everyone keeps predicting the end of books... but reading is a private thing. It engages the visual sense as well as the word sense, and therefore both sides of the brain. It takes you over entirely in a way that television and other things don't." That's no bad thing when banks are crashing, the Government is prevaricating, and the price of a Mills & Boon book is only £2.99.
But why do people read romantic fiction? Trish Wylie, a young Mills & Boon author, says: "It's pure escapism. For instance, no man in a Mills & Boon novel would ever leave the toilet seat up." He would, of course, impregnate a complete stranger in a hospitality suite at a rugby match and then call her a gold-digging prostitute, if dashing Prince Casper is any indication. But all's well that ends well. "It's not so much about taking people away from their own, unfulfilling relationships," Blair says, "but that people like to read about what they are shooting for. We like to feel that our story can make sense. Fictional lives can make sense in a way that our own never do."
If the true romantic fiction market is going from strength to strength, though, the literary equivalent is apparently struggling. So says Tim Lott, the president of the Le Prince Maurice Prize, which aims to reward well-written love stories that are "about love, the nature of love, the many aspects of love," and are entirely rooted in a central relationship between two adults.
"It's been a long time since anyone's written a great love story," Lott says. "Literary writers are failing to address the subject. I sometimes think that they are more interested in 'writing' than in understanding the human heart – they've lost touch with a fundamental element of what it is to be a writer. I don't really buy into it any more; I go and watch an episode of The Shield or something. I look to drama, TV and film. Literary writers have lost their mojo when it comes to this subject."
How, then, do writers, readers and prize committees distinguish between literary fiction, romantic fiction, and the sheer trash that no self-respecting, literate romantic would be seen reading on the Tube? According to Catherine Jones, it isn't always easy. In the research conducted by Book Marketing Limited (BML) on behalf of the RNA, the trickiest thing was defining romantic fiction in order to measure its sales. Publishers tend to call the books "women's mass market fiction" and place it on the A-Z shelves. Waterstone's, for instance, has no separate category for romantic fiction. If you couldn't judge a book by its cover, then readers would be very confused.
BML's strategy was to include any book classified as "romance" or "saga" according to the standard definitions based on Nielsen BookData. They added any book, play or poem classified as popular fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction or classic fiction and written by any writer on a list of 135 "romantics": Cecelia Ahern, Catherine Cookson, Marian Keyes, William Shakespeare... In addition, the following titles were counted as classic romantic fiction: Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach and Atonement by Ian McEwan; The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett; Inconceivable by Ben Elton... Do these writers know they're writing romance?
If writers such as Elton, Tony Parsons and others on the list of writers who were fingered by the RNA as writing romantically feel emasculated by being listed alongside Josephine Cox and Katie Price, they are in good company. When I put a list of classic literature to a straw poll of RNA members, the following were deemed to fit into the romantic fiction category: The Constant Gardener by John le Carré; The End of the Affair by Graham Greene; The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas; and Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Romantic novelist and RNA member Hugh Rae (who writes as Jessica Stirling) agreed that Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls would have made a perfectly fitting romantic novel of the year had the prize been in existence when it was published in 1940. Not so many agreed about Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim or Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, which arguably are romantic.
Fortunately, Tim Lott's definition is broader; John Updike's entire series of Rabbit books, he says, was in large part "about his relationship with his wife and their marriage over four decades". The nature of love within a marriage is an admirable subject for a love story, he says, although "Updike was criticised for misogyny for writing honestly about what went on in a marriage".
This, Lott believes, could begin to explain what is putting off intelligent V C writers who want to produce serious novels about love. "Women writers must be very nervous about being shuffled into the chick-lit category," he says. "A lot of fine women writers are being discouraged. Men are scared of being labelled misogynist, because there is a lot of hate in love. They would have to say things about women which are taboo, and that's treading on very thin ice." It's no surprise, he adds, that many of the more convincing love stories of recent years have been about same-sex relationships; he names Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Joanna Briscoe and Charlotte Mendelson as writers to be feted.
This is one area, of course, in which the modern love story has changed. When Mills & Boon was founded 100 years ago, tipping the velvet would not have been countenanced. In the 1950s, a writer was told to edit out an illegitimate character; the Irish market was too important to upset. By the 1960s, the books were allowed to discuss sex within marriage, but not explicitly. In 1973, masturbation (that "solitary, inadequate substitute" for love) made its debut, but it didn't really catch on. And the first oral sex scene didn't appear until 1982.
Now, Mills & Boon has 10 different categories of novel, from Superromance (which still wouldn't incense the Irish market) to Blaze, in which "pretty much anything goes – but all in the context of an enduring emotional relationship". A gay relationship has yet to feature at the centre of a Mills & Boon novel, but this is not down to policy; same-sex relationships have been peripheral to a number of plots.
The evolution of the romantic novel, says Catherine Jones, can be traced by looking at their covers. "It was shoes off in the kitchen, through to power dressing and the boardroom. What women are doing is reflected in the books. They address the same issues – divorce, adultery..." Sometimes, themes do occur – four out of five of the books on this year's Romantic Novel of the Year shortlist were about writers, for some reason. Coincidentally, Marika Cobbold's Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, published this month, is the story of a romantic novelist whose own love life is a disaster.
At Mills & Boon, it is policy not to confront topical political issues (the brooding hero would not have been a strategic player in the miner's strike, for instance), but topicality does creep in. The Prince's Waitress Wife, poor child, is the victim of a paparazzi campaign.
Above all, says Catherine Jones, romantic fiction is the modern, grown-up version of the fairy tale. And there are tales for the boys, she says, and a different set of tales for the girls. "If you think about boys' stories like Aladdin and Ali Baba," she explains, "they translate into James Bond and Jack Higgins. We do the adult versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. They're all just grown-up fairy tales, but the women's fairy-tales do seem to have been the Aunt Sally." In terms of reputation, that is, not sales; 93 per cent of romantic fiction books in 2007 were bought for women readers. In adult fiction generally, women are about 60 per cent of readers.
Jones's theory was reflected in a recent poll of readers of chick lit – a modern branch of romantic fiction with, allegedly, a sense of humour. The survey, about the greatest chick-lit novel of all time, had Cecelia Ahern's PS I Love You at No 1, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones oeuvre at No 2 and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at No 3.
John Sewell, the managing director of onepoll.com, which conducted the survey, said: "The fundamental difference between women's preferred reads and men's is that, understandably, women seem to enjoy tales about love, being single, shopping and sex, whereas men like adventure, unanswered questions and action." Understandably? If he says so.
So, is the modern-day fairy-tale doing any harm? Are these women in danger of getting carried away? In Mills & Boon, says Clare Somerville, "the alpha male may be initially damaged, which makes him arrogant and aloof, but he ultimately becomes a nurturing force. She becomes the centre of his universe."
In Mills & Boon, maybe – but not so much in real life, where an emotionally distant love object tends to stay distant. A modern answer to the winsome virgin waitress might well be: "Darling, he's just not that into you." (One little-known fact is that a descendant of founder Charles Boon is a forensic psychologist who specialises in stalking and issues of sexual obsession.)
But Linda Blair believes that all this is just harmless escapism. "Many of them do still play up to a stereotype of male power that we haven't really dispensed with yet," she admits. "It's appealing to the chase, the excitement of capturing... But I think they're wonderful. As long as we bear in mind that it is fantasy. I teach relationship knowledge and awareness in schools, and it is important to tell people that love isn't easy. Kids tend to think it should be easy, and that if it isn't they should dump it. That's not necessarily the case."
Studies have found in favour of romance as a form of distraction. In 1984, Janice Radway's Reading the Romance found that "by picturing the heroine in relative positions of weakness, romances are not necessarily endorsing her situation but examining an all-too-common state of affairs in order to display possible strategies for coping with it." More recently, a National Year of Reading survey was aimed at hard-to-reach audiences and the professionals who work with them. "It makes these women feel good about themselves," said a professional respondent. "They can go out and face the world rather than feel naive and stupid." Another respondent, a young Bangladeshi, said: "One minute I'm a Muslim woman from Bethnal Green, the next I'm a lady in 18th-century England."
Charles's son John Boon once said of his company: "We ought to be prescribed by the NHS. We're better than valium." Better, considerably cheaper and, in these recessionary times, perhaps the best chance of preventing a public revolt. Gordon Brown should have the company nationalised.